UPPER WEST SIDE (PIX11)—How did a man with a record of inappropriate behavior with a child end up transferring to one of the city's best-endowed and competitive elementary schools, where he got arrested for sexually abusing a second grader multiple times? That's the question that parents at P.S. 87 now try to answer, and some are dissatisfied with how the Department of Education is responding to them.
Teachers aide Gregory Atkins, 56, is in custody on $250,000 bail, charged with committing four criminal acts on the same 8 year-old victim. Atkins made a boy he was supposed to be helping with his studies remove his clothes in a bathroom, and in the West 78th Street school's auditorium, according to prosecutors. They also said that during one encounter -- all on the same day -- Atkins told the boy that he wanted to lick the boy's genitals.
After the 90-minute meeting with the chancellor, the mood among many parents was markedly different, and featured a lot of frustration. "There's a massive breakdown in accountability," parent Kevin Krim told PIX11 News. "It's unacceptable, really." His child is in the class where Atkins had worked as a paraprofessional, providing help to students in whatever way the classroom teacher and the school determined.
Michelle Kalski is also the mother of a student in Atkins's class. "How can someone with an order of protection against him get transferred to another school?" she asked. "And there was no investigation prior to transferring?"
Both Kalski and Krim were among many parents who were referring to a report from the city's Office of Special Investigation from six years ago which concluded that Gregory Atkins had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a boy at M.S. 322 in Washington Heights, where Atkins worked at the time. The investigation found that he had given the boy gifts that included a jock strap, and an athletic cup and Atkins had offered the boy's family to have him stay at Atkins's home.
The principal at M.S. 322, Erica Zigelman, was permitted to choose the disciplinary action she chose fit for Atkins, and Zigelman did not put the report of wrongdoing in his file. As a result, when Atkins transferred to P.S.87 in 2008, the school may not have known about his past wrongdoing, which, incidentally, did not include sexual impropriety, according to investigators.
That was, however, little solace to P.S. 87 parents like Javier Solana, whose children were in contact with Atkins on a daily basis. "I don't understand," Solana told PIX11 News. "How is it possible that someone could have substantial allegations like that, and not only get transferred out of a middle school, and be transferred to an elementary school?"
Many parents told PIX11 News that he chancellor did not fully answer that question. He did make a promise, however.
"The accountability rests with me," Dennis Walcott said at a newsconference after his meeting with parents. "I am the chancellor, and I will get back in touch with them to answer their questions." Walcott pledged future meetings with parents at the school after he talked with the principal of Atkins's former school, Erica Zigelman, and further investigated how and why Atkins's past offense was apparently not reported to P.S.87.
Atkins's arrest came just five days after another teacher's aide, Taleek Brooks, 40, was arrested at an elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for making pornographic videos with students in classrooms. He is currently in federal custody pending trial, with no bail.
Regarding the situation at P.S. 87, the chancellor's assurances on Tuesday may not be enough for some parents at the Upper West Side school, many of whom chose to live nearby in order to try and gain admission to the extremely popular school. Actress Cynthia Nixon is currently a parent at the school school that's also known as the William T. Sherman School, and until recently, actress Mira Sorvino also sent her child there.
Many familes who apply to the school can't get in -- there simply aren't enough seats to match the high demand. Among parents whose children do attend P.S.87, especially those parents of students who encountered Atkins daily, some skepticism remains as the investigation into the 11-year veteran teachers aide continues.
"This is very hard for me to believe that this is the only incident that has happened with a child," parent Michelle Kalski said. "This may have just been the first time that he's been caught."